I am going to Glasgow next week to spend time with our Scotland team. It is always something of a sentimental journey for me. Glasgow is where my career, and links to men’s health, all began.
Back when I was a rookie nurse (complete with ponytail would you believe), I spent many of my training placements on the male wards of some of the big city hospitals in the west end of Glasgow. Many of the men that I encountered there were ‘traditional’ Glaswegians, fun loving, hard living, football-obsessed men who loved to rib the lanky student nurse with a daft English accent and a season ticket at Partick Thistle (I got even more grief for my adopted football club than I did for hairstyle). The men that I met were not given to feeling sorry for themselves and it is seeing the impact that prostate cancer had on them that has had the most lasting impact on me.
I learnt a great deal from those men (including lots of new swear words) and often the male wards were places of great humour and comradeship. However, there are other aspects of caring for those men that will always stay with me. As I travel to Scotland I will be thinking about one man in particular. Danny had never really experienced being ill before and certainly was not used to talking about his health, he took part in the normal ward banter but more powerful than words was the fear in his eyes, and that look has stayed with me. It was a fear of being sick, a fear of dying and in many ways most importantly, a fear of having all the things that he felt defined him as a man come crashing down to the floor. That look in his eyes stayed with me throughout my career from working in A&E departments, then as a manager in the NHS and I remember it now especially at Prostate Cancer UK. That man, however tough he was beyond that hospital, was scared. He was not sure what would happen to him, and I am pretty sure he would not have been consulted then by a system which would have thought it knew best for him.
Things may have changed since then, or have they? Men may have more say in their treatment options, but men’s health is still not where it needs to be. I am in Scotland to be there for the planned announcement by the Scottish Medicines Consortium (SMC) about whether abiraterone will become available to Scottish men. It is the last of the four nations to declare its decision (following a review of its earlier announcement not to make it available), and the last to hold out giving the drug, so far, to the men who need it. We campaigned successfully to make it available on the NHS in England and Wales. Northern Ireland followed suit last week. It can’t be right that men in Scotland are denied the drug, when those a few miles down the road can enjoy its benefits, which are as fundamental as extending life and reducing pain when other options have expired.
The case of George Fraser is a perfect illustration of this injustice. Prior to accessing abiraterone George had been bed ridden on high doses of morphine, 24 hours a day. He couldn’t walk, or even eat. But last week he strolled into our Glasgow office to be interviewed by STV as part of our campaign to have the drug approved in Scotland. He was able to do so because he is now taking abiraterone. However, because he lives in Scotland, George had to cash his pension in early and has to pay thousands of pounds himself every month to access the drug. I may not have been able to do anything to change things for the man on the ward all those years ago, but as an organisation raising its voice for men with this disease, Prostate Cancer UK is standing up to do something for men like George and Danny now, whatever their backgrounds, wherever they live.
We are so grateful to those who have backed our campaign to make abiraterone available to all men who need this drug, and continue to do so. The Scottish media has devoted many column inches to the issue, and I am sure they are poised for the announcement on Monday. All eyes will certainly be on the SMC and my thoughts will be with Danny.